Russian Electronic Music: People and Instruments
In this brand new text, our team member Alexei Borisov comprehensively recalls his upbringing in Moscow, heavily informed by the visits in the early 1970’s to the computation centre at the Moscow University, where his father worked. He talks about a rich and developing electronic music scene in the 1980’s and his ongoing project Notchnoi Prospekt and countless other bands and musicians of the time, while giving us an insight into the transition to the 1990’s following the end of the USSR.
Notchnoi Prospekt (1982). Photo by Vladimir Marochkin.
At the beginning of the 70’s I moved to the Cheryomushkinsky district of Moscow. My parents were given a separate apartment (before that we lived in a communal apartment near Mir (Peace) Avenue) in a so-called “house of improved conditions” or just DAS (House of post-graduate and intern students on Shvernik Street), which belonged to Moscow State Lomonosov’s University.
Views of this construction can be seen in the final scenes of Eldar Ryazanov’s popular tv comedy “Irony of Fate”. This then ultramodern house was mainly inhabited by students and post-graduates, and a few floors in the second building were occupied by families of MSU employees, who became participants of a sociological experiment on the establishment of a new household. Certainly, the experiment flopped, but we got a beat-group, formed by a post-graduate from Azerbaijan. My music career began from this very band, where I started playing the bass guitar when I was in the 7th form. I started listening to contemporary music more seriously, attempting to break it down into styles and trends, to single out and distinguish between sounds of separate instruments. In the 70’s (or maybe earlier) there was a notion of electronic music in Russia, which I associated mainly with cartoons, documentary and sci-fi movies, as well as with the orchestra of electronic musical instruments guided by Vyacheslav Meshcherin, which mostly played on TV and radio waltzes and easy-listening classical and pop music. The orchestra used theremins, electric organs, accordions, harps, violins and other instruments of a semi-traditional, slightly futuristic appearance, equipped with pick-ups and amplified.
At that moment it seemed uninteresting, boring and unattractive to me. The playing and the sound of the electronic instruments in Meshcherin’s orchestra seemed too cold and lacking in energy, the energy which distinguished rock music from other styles. On the other hand, in our band we used the Soviet “Yunost” (Youth) organ, which could produce quite weird sounds if treated in a special way. Of course, it couldn’t compare with Hammond organ or other numerous keyboards, which could be seen on the sleeves or heard on the discs of such bands as Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, ELP, Yes, Genesis or at concerts of Soviet ensembles, which were well equipped with imported instruments and appliances. In the second half of the 70’s, names like Klaus Schultze, Tangerine Dream and even Kraftwerk started being heard among my circle of friends. However, the information available about them was minimal, and the only electronic instrument we had was the “Yunost” organ, connected to self-made distortion units or a domestically manufactured wah-wah pedal.
Meanwhile, my father worked in the computation center of the Moscow State University and from time to time arranged an excursion there for me and my classmates. It was in the early or mid 70’s. A huge domestically made computer (STRELA and later the more modern BESM-6) occupied a large pavilion, working 24 hours a day. Visually it reminded of a space station or the control room of a nuclear reactor, where various devices produced a regular buzz and were illuminated by multicolor lights. The facility was for authorised personnel only, and technicians wore special gowns, performing odd manipulations with magnetic bands and numerous punched cards, which stored a considerable (for those days) amount of information. Several times my father showed me pictures made by the machine, as well as made it speak and play some primitive and poor quality music. However, it impressed me for my whole life. At some moment (around 1978), for my birthday my friends presented me with “Oxygen” by Jean-Michel Jarre, some electronic disco and fusion music, and it became obvious that in those living and technical conditions it was impossible to make electronic music.
Only at the beginning of the 80’s the situation improved a little. With emergence of punk and new wave electronic music became more comprehensive and accessible, including a technical aspect. My colleagues from the Center group, where I played the guitar in 1980-1981, started experimenting with electronic instruments provided by Mikhail Mikhaylyuk, a professional musician (member of studio electronic project “Valery Chkalov’s Squad”) and simultaneously an unofficial vendor of musical instruments. It was the first time I came across a Roland rhythm box, bass line (it was the legendary Roland TB-303) and Casio instruments. I was particularly impressed by Korg MS-20, an excellent analogue synthesizer, which seemed to open the doors to the world of real electronic music. By the way, many of these instruments were adopted by Notchnoi Prospekt (Night Avenu), founded by me and keyboard player Ivan Sokolovsky in 1985. Before that (1981-1984) within a student beat group called Prospekt we attempted to combine the sound of electronic instruments with guitars, using self-made electronic drums and “Yunost” with other mini-organ, FAEMI, which in combination with a fuzz box produced an impression of a very aggressive noise instrument. Under the influence of the early stuff by XTC, The Stranglers, Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division, we intuitively tried to mix energy of punk and new wave with a colder, but in the same time more aesthetic and futuristic electronic sound.
Notchnoi Prospekt in Kiev (1988). Photo by Alexey Zaika
Of course, we were not alone in this endeavour, but in Russia there was a long-lasting conviction that electronic music of the end of the 70’s – beginning of the 80’s was a disco variation, an exclusively commercial phenomenon, unacceptable from the point of view of true rock music.
However since 1985, while ignoring the pressure by the administration of the Rock Laboratory (a semi-professional organization, initiated in 1985 by Ministry of Culture, KGB and Komsomol [Young Communist League] in order to unite and control underground rock groups), membership in which allowed us to perform legally, Sokolovsky and me abandoned traditional rock instruments (except for guitar) and started exclusively using drum machines, keyboards and synthesizers as a duo, sometimes engaging our percussionist friends Sergey Pavlov and Alexey Raskatov (both ex-Prospekt) and the female singer Natasha Borzhomova (Her family name was Agapova).
Our electronic arsenal was certainly far from perfect. We used several variants of the Soviet electronic organ FAEMI, different mini-Casios, and small Bontempi keyboards, which were brought by Ivan’s mother from abroad. From time to time we added synthesizers such as the Korg Poly-800, Korg MS-20, Roland Juno-106, Roland TB-303, and Korg and Boss drum machines, which we borrowed from our colleagues. Sometimes we used Vermona instruments (made in GDR), where were very popular in the USSR. Later we used the Yamaha RX-11 drum machine and the Yamaha DX-7, DX-21 and DX-100 synthesizers. The Soviet industry launched various keyboards on the market, including the better known Elektronika instruments, electric organs by Lel’, as well as the Polyvox synthesizer (which resembled the legendary MiniMoog) and some other instruments produced in different republics of the Soviet Union. However, these instruments, in spite of their low prices, seemed to us too cumbersome, unreliable in operation, unpredictable to control and very rough-sounding. Only in the 90’s could we rightfully appraise all the highs and lows of these instruments. They were particularly in demand for the creation of industrial and experimental music, becoming highly collectible rarities.
Those days (1984-1987) we recorded blank pieces on tape, using a UHER reel recorder and, later, a modified NOTA reel player, with which we performed on stage, playing the guitar and portable Casios live. This practice of the mid 80’s later was adopted by various pop groups, who went further into complete lip-syncing instead of playing live.
In the second half of the 80’s a so-called “electronic scene” was established in Moscow. It mainly tended towards pop forms, but also revealed some innovation and a search for independent ways of playing and composing electronic music. Of course, the main reference for most Russian musicians was Depeche Mode, whose popularity in Russia was immense. Among representatives of the Moscow electronic scene of the 80’s I need to mention such bands as BIOCONSTRUCTOR, ALLIANCE, Vladimir Ratskevich’s VECTOR, DOCTOR, Alexey Tegin’s SECOND GROUP, the GOODBYE TO YOUTH duo, Alexander Sinitsin’s UNION OF COMPOSERS, Yuri’s Tsaryov’s METRO, multi-instrumentalists and composers: Eduard and Artemy Artemyev, Michail Chekalin, Andrey Rodionov, Yuri Chernavsky and Michail Michaylyuk as well as the electronic side-projects of Yuri Orlov (NICOLAS COPERNICUS) and Vasily Shumov (CENTER). In Leningrad the electronic sound was adopted by AVIA, TELEVIZOR and MODEL, as well as the studio duo NEW COMPOSERS and the legendary avant-gardist Sergey Kuryokhin. There was a kind of a scene in Baltic republics, but local electronic musicians, except for ZODIAC, Disco Aliance and Sven Grünberg, as a rule, were hardly known outside Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
It needs to be mentioned, that in the 80’s Russian electronic bands faced a lot of problems, especially in concerts. First of all, the acoustic systems of those days were of poor quality and mainly designed for rock instruments. On the other hand, the audience was very sceptical about electronic music and just couldn’t comprehend experimental forms of musicianship. That is why the performances of electronic musicians in the 80’s were held in extremely difficult and unfavourable conditions as compared to numerous rock-bands. Very exemplary in this respect was an audition of the Rock Laboratory’s groups in 1988 in order to attest and rate them. For the whole day in Gorbunov’s Cultural Center different experts (such as well-known in Russia band-leaders and composers Yuri Malikov, Alexei Kozlov, Yuri Saulsky, etc.) and musicians assessed the performances of their colleagues. All electronic bands (though there were only three of them) flapped, especially Notchnoi Prospekt, which wasn’t attested at all (like, by the way, the favourites of Moscow audience ZVUKI MU) and received the minimum rating in the amount of five rubles (or something of the sort) per concert. Against the background of mobile rock-bands, electronic musicians with their synthesizers looked awkward and ambitious. It took a long time for them to plug and tune and the result sounded unconvincing and flabby.
As for Notchnoi Prospekt, since 1987 we started gradually to enrich our instrument set, moving towards industrial-electronic psychedelia. In addition to sampling equipment and a powerful analog synthesizer Korg MonoPoly we started using an acoustic drum-kit, on which Sergey Pavlov played, and electric violin of Dmitry Kutergin, who was a former leader of the semi-electronic band DOCTOR and played with the famous underground project DK, as well as electronic composers Eduard and Artemy Artemyevs and Sergey Kuryokhin’s global art project POP-MECHANICS. We also used a xylophone and extended the range of guitar effects. Ivan Sokolovsky, who was responsible for the electronic part, also used guitar gadgets, numerous self-made devices (for example, a vocoder), as well as synthesizers and drum machines of different generations and manufacturers.
Notchnoi Prospekt – Skipidar (a track from the forthcoming album Polyurethane)
Our basic electronic kit of the late 80’s consisted of Roland TB-303, Korg MS-20, Korg MonoPoly, Korg Superpercussion and a childish Casio sampler. In the studio we still used various Yamahas, sometimes an excellent Oberheim drum machine and early variants of Akai samplers, which were owned by some Moscow musicians. In our special performances, prepared for festivals and gallery happenings, we attempted to use a button accordion, various pick-ups and contact microphones, acoustic string instruments and small metal constructions in combination with effect processors and loops recorded on magnetic tapes. In this period I particularly started to use Korg MS-20 as a guitar processor. At the end of the 80’s the major part of Sokolovsky’s collection of synthesizers was at my apartment, which allowed me to pay more serious attention to my solo works, to record various experiments on a 4-channel Tascam porto-studio and a regular Technics cassette recorder.
In 1989 Sokolovsky quit Notchnoi Prospekt to pursue his solo career. For a period we had no electronic instruments and started playing as a more traditional rock group, using a guitar, bass, drums and electric violin. Our new member, bass player Alexey Solovyov, was also a good keyboard player, who оwned a Roland Micro-composer, a very promising analog instrument which became popular in the 90’s. Later, he went into hip-hop and acid-house, which influenced records of NP in the beginning of the 90’s. He was one of the first in Russia to fuse folk and dance music, created a club garage project (RAKETA) and became a producer of the first Russian compilations of electronic music.
Notchnoi Prospekt in Moscow (1985). Photo by Oleg Kornev.
At the end of the 80’s the situation started changing not only in music, but also in technology. Very soon Moscow studios and musicians started replacing analog synthesizers with digital ones. All kinds of workstations became fashionable. Studio owners paid more attention to sampling equipment. Such trends were reflected in the studio processes of Notchnoi Prospekt, when during the recording of some works we sampled instruments completely and then controlled the sampler (it was the Roland S-10 and later Roland W-30, and sometimes Emulator II and Ensoniq samplers) with the help of a digital sequencer. However, at a certain moment, digital equipment also began seeming limited in terms of sound, and it was quite expensive. As a result, the instrument set of Notchnoi Prospekt and the more experimental duo F.R.U.I.T.S., created in 1992 by composer and producer Pavel Zhagun and myself, was expanded with analog synthesizers, including the Roland TB-303, Roland Micro-composer, Crumar Performer, MiniMoog and other instruments, which were highly rated in the 70’s and early 80’s. For some period they were out of fashion and hardly used by most of Russian musicians, especially those who played traditional rock with keyboards or produced commercial pop products. At that moment, we and some our colleagues (particularly, Roman Belavkin aka Solar X) started actively using of all kinds of Soviet synthesizers, which, as it turned out, had been produced in abundance (Polyvox, Ritm-2, Aelita, different Electronikas, Formanta, Lel’ drum machine, various synthesizers produced in the Baltic republics, etc.). All these devices had a very specific sound, different from Japanese or European instruments.
In the middle of the 90’s Moscow experienced a real boom of demand for analog synthesizers and old drum machines. At the same time, Moscow was flooded by latest equipment from abroad, and, besides instruments from well-known producers, some Moscow musicians obtained exotic and quite expensive instruments from Quasimidi, Waldorf, Clavia, Doepfer, etc. Relatively cheap groove-boxes, which allowed one to produce music operatively and, most importantly, with good quality, came into fashion. Many musicians in the 90’s gathered impressive collections, where one could see instruments of different generations, companies and countries. The champions were Richardas Norvilla (BENZO, E-SHAK and other projects), Yuri Orlov (NICOLAS COPERNICUS, F.I.O., COLD HAND OF MOSCOW), Nikolay Nebogatov (Spies Boys/NN Records), members of SOLARIS STATION project and some other representatives of Moscow electronic scene.
In the 90’s, my personal collection was replenished with the Roland TR-626, TR-707, Korg DDM-110 drum machines, the Roland SH-101 synthesizer and Russian devices – the RITM-2 analog synthesizer, LEL’ drum machine and trigger modules. Moreover, I returned to the active use of various guitar effects, especially distortions and fuzzes, which mainly self-made. The availability of midi instruments and older trigger devices gave me an opportunity to promptly comute between different studios and effectively play experimental concerts and dance sets. In my opinion, the so-called hardware (especially of old design) can be successfully combined with modern computer technologies, creating a unique sound and providing an illusion of live playing and feeling of improvisation.
The second half of the 90’s, for me, was spent in endless tours over Russia, both solo and as part of some small projects, where I had to play electronic music of a wide range in absolutely different places and environments. More over, the availability of compact and mobile instruments in combination with DJ techniques helped my visits to Europe, when I established interesting contacts and enhanced my performance abilities to play in any facility and to get promptly adjusted in any collaborative project.
The current situation in Russian electronic music is very similar with Europe or America. A total computerisation of musical processes is taking place, which is conditioned by the natural development of technologies, as well as by objective economic reasons. It is understood that computers provide endless possibilities to musicians. However, computer technologies are able to level or standardise the product to such an extent, that various aesthetic, national, emotional, personal and other subjective features of the producer could just disappear. For many people such a situation of “sound and technological cosmopolitanism” is unacceptable, but for some others, on the contrary, it is very attractive and the only possible one. Meanwhile, Russia still remains a closed country, including its cultural sphere. Vast territories and a considerable part of the population stay in informational and technological isolation. The absence of a unified music market also affects the development of musical processes, including in the field of electronic music. Of course, a certain role is played by the specific Russian mentality, which still can’t be clearly understood and, most likely, is a combination of some very subjective social-psychological, linguistic and cultural peculiarities, conditioned by local age-long traditions, as well as the peculiarities of the historical process within a given territory. Such nuances can influence not only the local or regional situation, including the musical sphere, but also different world-wide and global processes. This influence can be positive or negative. With an adverse development of the situation negative moments will prevail, finally helping the global growth of absurdity, uncontrolled anarchy and, as a result, an inevitable collapse of the world civilisation.
To a certain degree, Russian electronic music in general is a continuation or development of the traditions of Russian avant-garde (neo-futurism, suprematism, constructivism, absurdism, etc.) in combination with the mass worship of scientific and technical progress. Since the 1920’s Russia (and later East Europe and a part of Asia) became a large training ground for testing various social-economic schemes, technological ideas and different inventions, as well as national economic experiments. At some moment, a specific idolisation of machines, industrial architecture, electricity, science and the very labor process occurred in Russia.
Moreover, the industrialisation of the society and scientific and technical progress in general obtained a political character, becoming a part of the communist ideology and a means of fighting against western imperialism and capitalism. The Russian electronic environment subconsciously reflects this phenomenon, being kind of a symbol of “sacralisation” of the very act of music production, with the help of sophisticated devices and the latest computer programs.
As a result, a certain hypothetic task of Russian electronic music is to combine harmoniously and effectively its intellectual potential with the cult of technology. On the other hand, for local musicians it makes sense to overcome a certain technological dependence or even inferiority to achieve artistic freedom, mental liberation and independence from various cliches and notorious international standards. Just then, in my opinion, an interesting result is possible, which can absorb the entire variety and depth of the Russian “cultural chaos”, providing at the same time a considerable influence on world-wide creative processes.